Patagonia's wild rivers at risk (with photographic essay)

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A plan to build five large-scale hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in Chilean Patagonia, then send the power to Chile’s capitol Santiago via an immense 2,300- kilometer electric transmission line that traverses numerous parks and protected areas, is entering a crucial stage. 
Earlier this month, the US$ 5 billion project proposed by HydroAysen, jointly owned by Italy’s Enel and Chile’s Colbun, submitted its responses to a third round of questions from regional environmental authorites in Aysen. A decision on the environmental impact study by Aysen’s Environmental Evaluation Commission is expected by early May.
Recent public opinion polls show a majority of Chileans oppose the dams. In particular, a poll released by IPSOS this week shows Chileans are increasingly against the project: the latest poll shows 61 percent of Chileans do not want the HydroAysen project to be built. That, despite a massive publicity campaign launched in December by HidroAysen in Chilean television, radio and print media, promoting a misleading view that Chile will face energy shortages without the project.
They have good reason to reject this project -- the environmental, economic and cultural impacts on Aysen and much of Chilean Patagonia will be enormous and profoundly negative. 
There are well-founded concerns that the center-right government of President Sebastián Piñera, much like it did with the Mina Invierno project on Riesco Island in February, has already given a “pre-approval” to the dam complex.

The latest questions posed by the government to HidroAysen in November 2010, which number fewer than 200, avoid several major issues of past concern raised by the previous Michele Bachelet government including how climate change and accelerated glacial flooding might affect the safety of the dams. Moreover, the government water agency has already granted HidroAysén expanded water rights.
There are also concerns about the integrity of the process: officials working in Aysén for the national parks and forest service (Conaf) say their superiors in Santiago changed their comments on the environmental impact study at the last minute in order to aid approval of HidroAysén. Conaf officials in Aysén have maintained since the start of the evaluation process that the dams will partially flood Laguna San Rafael National Park, which violates environmental laws. But Conaf officials in Santiago recently overruled them in the latest response to the HidroAysén addendum.
“Here we have a deficient study—before, more than a third of public agencies were recommending rejection of the project for lack of information and legal conflicts. Now, this project is sailing through the evaluation process thanks to Pinera officials,” says Patricio Rodrigo, executive secretary of the Council for the Defense of Patagonia, a coalition of international and Chilean organizations working to stop the dams.
Below is a photographic essay of the Baker River watershed, showing a slice of what’s at stake. These photos were shot as part of a Patagonia Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (Rave) in February and March 2010 organized by the International League of Conservation Photographers to help contribute toward the long-term protection of this globally-valuable region. The expedition team included the Pulitzer prize winner and National Geographic photographer Jack Dykinga, as well as award winning photographers Daniel Beltra, Bridget Besaw and Jeff Foott.
Meantime, consider taking action. Check out this link from the Patagonia Without Dams campaign with info on how you can help.  



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